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Mt. Arafune is a mountain that I have had my eye on for a while. In addition to being included on the list of 200 Famous Mountains, the massive rock formation flanking the summit plateau resembles the hull of a giant battleship for which the mountain receives its name.

Alastair and I depart from Suwa station on a bright and sunny morning at the start of the Golden Week holiday. We head east into neighboring Gunma Prefecture and reach the trailhead after a couple of hours of easy driving. It is my first hike with the fair-skinned Englishman, a self-determined mountaineer that can be found on neighboring alpine summits in the Kita, Chuo, and Minami Alps most weekends. Mt. Arafune dominates the skyline for miles around and can even be viewed from most of the Kita Alps if you know where to look.

A rope is draped across the trail, indicating some kind of closure. Having faced such obstacles before, I know that if the trail were really in such poor condition that they would built an impenetrable barrier. Alastair and I slip under the rope and along a very well-used path that hugs a narrow ridge. After a few modest rises and drops in altitude, we reach a saddle just before the final climb to the summit plateau. We soon arrive on top of Tomo rock and gaze out at Mt. Asama sitting snugly across a steep valley directly in front of us. We could almost reach out and touch it if not for the 200-meter high vertical cliff dropping just below our feet.

Speaking of cliffs, in 2009 this very cliff claimed the life of Kureyon Shinchan creator Yoshito Usui, whose death occurred under suspicious circumstances. Since there were no witnesses, there is debate as to whether the manga author ventured too close to the edge and lost his footing or whether it was a conscious decision to intentionally jump off and end it all. The drop causes severe vertigo problems for Alastair, but I crawl over on my belly to look down upon what would certainly be a rather nasty way to end your life.

As we admire the views, a trail runner jogs up and nonchalantly stands on the edge of the cliff peering over. The gusts of wind come strongly and irregularly and we both close our eyes before our fearless friend steps back from the void. He introduces himself as Mt. Haga and quickly blurts out a half-dozen peaks in the area that he recommends checking out. We pore over the maps and locate a few for future reference.

The true summit of Arafune is on the other side of this vast plateau lined with native hardwoods and a gentle mountain stream. It takes nearly an hour to cross over and reach the top, which affords views to our south of the Yatsugatake range. We retrace our steps all the way back to the car and head over to Uchiyama campground.

We check in and enjoy a late lunch of Genghis Khan lamb and ice cream before parking the car at the campsite. The winds are absolutely howling, so we put off erecting the tent and instead explore the mountains surrounding the plateau. Halfway along our traverse of a trio of forgettable peaks, we come across a well-fed rotund creature wobbling across a meadow. I take a quick picture before the mysterious animal scuttles for cover in the thick underbrush. It is no other than a anaguma or Japanese badger, my very first sighting of the elusive mammal.

The setting sun gives way to a brilliant display of stars. We somehow get the tent to stay upright while I give up on erecting my lightweight tarp. After our campfire is reduced to glowing coals, we retreat to bed. I settle in for a noisy night inside the tent while Alastair enjoys the warmth and serenity of the car.

The following morning dawns clear but the yellow haze pushing in from the Gobi Desert has reduced visibility to mum. We halfway consider climbing up a peak or two before throwing in the towel and taking an excursion to Shirakaba at the base of Mt. Tateshina for a pleasant lakeside stroll.

Mt. Arafune is well worth a visit, but the remote location really warrants having your own set of wheels. There is irregular bus/train service from Shimonita in the east but it involves a very long approach along a seldom-used trail. The vistas of Mt. Myogi more than make up for the ease of access though.

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Mt. Watamuki in Shiga Prefecture is well-known as a mecca for rime ice viewers. My only visit to the 1100-meter high mountain was perfectly timed for the first ice crystals of the season.

So impressed was I with the majesty of the mountain I quickly added it to my other site, where fellow hikers can find practical information for accessing the mountain. There have only been about 1100 views of that posting, which is about 1 view per meter so to speak.

If you do visit in the winter and time it right, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Mt. Amagoi, the most remote of the Suzuka Peaks, sits due north of Watamuki, just begging for a full-winter traverse, when the thick undergrowth is buried in the snow. In fact, you could climb from here all the way to Mt. Gozaisho if armed with proper navigation devices.

Although mountain leeches tend to congregate in the valleys surrounding the Suzuka range, they have yet to penetrate these folds of the Suzuka. That may change in the future, however. The intense summer heat would likely make summer ascents uncomfortable, even without the blood-sucking worms.

In terms of the name, Watamuki is thought to have come from the Japanese word Watanuki, the old word for April. The word literally means to ‘remove cotton’, in terms of changing from the thick cotton kimono of winter to the cooler silk version of summer. In some ways this is true for the mountain itself – in April the snows melt to reveal the slick silky green foliage of summer.

An emergency hut is located about halfway up the mountain, making for a great place to overnight to catch the sunrise from the summit. You’d need to bring plenty of water, however, as there are no reliable water sources on the hike.

 

 

Nagisan – Rotting

Spring hiking in the Chūgoku region of Japan is always a gamble. Despite the relative lack of elevation, the snow squalls blanket the upper reaches of the mountains, providing meters of powdery fun in the frozen milliseconds of winter. Spring thaw means spring slush, and a good excuse to drag my friend (and slush novice) Hyemi up an obscure range in northern Okayama by the name of Nagisan.

I boarded an early morning train to Wake station for our meeting point. I had first met Hyemi at Kitazawa-tōge the previous summer and it was great to finally find someone in Okayama to accompany me on mountain pursuits. She pointed the car north and before too long we were tightening our shoe laces and placing our first footfalls on the well-worn path. After receiving a bit of advice from the locals, we chose the C course due to the unstable snow in the gullies of the popular B trail.

The well-used track soon left the forest road and traversed through a grove of Hinoki cypress trees recently stripped of bark. The brilliant ruby tints of the exposed trunks glinted peacefully in the cloud-filtered light. Apparently this bark was recently harvested for the re-roofing of a local shrine. It’s unclear whether the bark will simply grow back or if the trees have just been left to die a slow death from malnourishment. A future visit will likely help answer that question.

Switchbacks coaxed us up the ever-steepening slopes of this dormant volcano, whose muddy tracks soon disappeared under the first folds of rotting snow. Sinking up to our ankles, we followed the freeze-thaw grooves of previous hiking parties up a steep gully with nary an end in sight. Stray too far from this delicate maze of footprints and end up knee-deep in the sludgy quicksand.

I kicked steps as elegantly as I could as Hyemi followed in eager pursuit. We hit the ridge at Ōkami-iwa (大神岩), a brilliant rock formation affording refreshing views down to the valley far below. Named after the Japanese wolf, the rock formation derives its name from the creatures who used to frighten the locals from howling down from these exposed heights many centuries ago.

The trail flattened out on a broad ridge covered with meter-deep slush. We marched along in succession, the silence pierced by the Michael Jackson screams echoing from Hyemi’s larynx each and every time she sank up to her hips, which seemed to occur at every 4th footfall. I simply let out a grunt at such inconveniences as we contemplated potential retreat options.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the mid-week ascent was dotted with other like-minded fools, including one unfortunate trail runner who was obviously less prepared in his hiking short and trail runners. At the summit plateau, a small open shelter provided a dry place to stretch out and refuel. This shelter later became a victim of a strong typhoon and there is currently no plan to reconstruct the rest house, as there is a stronger emergency hut a short walk away.

Speaking of emergency shelters, we dropped north to the saddle housing the concrete structure before the final scramble to the summit, where the haze cut off views of Mt. Daisen and Hiruzen to the northwest. Retreating back to the shelter, we ducked inside to escape the strong winds and to engorge in a proper lunch and celebratory coffee, a necessity in my post-Hyakumeizan pursuits. I used to think that summiting was the most important part of the hike, but once I reached the age of 40 I can definitely tell you that a good strong cup of top-quality joe trumps all else.

The ‘piston’ hike back to the car was non-eventful, leaving us enough time to hit a local hot spring and to a feast of pizza and gratin at the aptly named Pizza King near Wake station. Hyemi promised to guide me up the Wake Alps, a hike that will finally come to fruition this very month in fact. I’m looking forward to the pizza as much as the trail itself.

Mt. Yokoyama doesn’t look like much of a mountain from the summit of Shizu-ga-take above the shores of Lake Yogo in northern Shiga Prefecture.

In fact, you could say the summit plateau is elegant, somewhat graceful when covered in a smooth silky cap of wintry white. From here, in fact, is probably where the name originated, as the mountain does look almost completely horizontal, earning the kanji character yoko (横). Looks can be quite deceptive, as Baku, Tomomi and I found out one winter.

It was Tomomi’s second attempt on the 1132-meter-high peak, after she was forced into a retreat by the chest-high snow drifts in mid-January. We settled in for a late winter assault along the Mitaka-one route which was detailed in a previous blog post.

The preferred route on the mountain is via the Shiratani/Higashi-one loop , a stunning track following a mountain stream past a duet of impressive waterfalls.

This is followed by an easy stroll through a lush beech forest along the summit plateau to Yokoyama’s twin peak Higashi-dake before looping back to the trailhead.

Shiratani route is only done in the green season and, due to time constraints on our climb, we skipped the eastern peak in favor of the faster pisuton descent.

On clear days the summit views of Hakusan are quite impressive but they do involve a bit of work to earn. The western peak, the higher of the two summits, is flanked by a storage shack-cum-emergency-hut and involves a hairy ladder climb to the rooftop observatory.

If you stand on your tiptoes and gaze north, then Hokuriku’s lone alpine summit stands proud and clear. Such views are best appreciated in the late May sunshine, when Hakusan lets down her cloud veil for a brief period before retreating into a summer hibernation amidst the plum rains of June.

Tracks of wild boar, rabbit, stoat, fox, tanuki, and bear are not uncommon in these hardwood swaths of untouched forest. We spent most of the ridge following the tracks of a mother and cub who preferred the broad ridge to the steep gullies lining either side of the long spur.

Access to the trailhead is best done by private transport. This will allow for an early start and will eliminate the need for the infrequent bus connection from Kinomoto station in northern Shiga Prefecture. Using the bus also means an extra 1 hour walk on a paved road just to reach the trailhead.

Lake Yogo and Lake Biwa are clearly visible to the south on days with good visibility. Glimpses of both lakes could be caught between breaks in the clouds, but you’d be much better off just opting for a stable high pressure system to settle over the region. Problem is, such systems are few and far between in these cloud-loving parts of Hokuriku.

 

 

 

 

Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

Tsuruga is your typical sleepy port town nestled in a quiet bay in southern Fukui Prefecture. Most visitors pass through on their way to Kanazawa, or perhaps kill time at the ferry terminal awaiting their transport to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. Mountaineers, on the other hand, should know that the city is home to a triumvirate of peaks known as the Tsuruga Sanzan: Mt. Saihō, Mt. Nosaka, and Mt. Iwagomori.

Nosaka is the obvious choice for winter mountaineers, thanks to the support of a fervent local who climbs and blogs about the mountain nearly every day of the year. With such up-to-date information at hand, you can not only get a real time update of the current snowpack, but you can also rest assured that you’ll always have a trace to follow through the knee-deep powder.

Paul, Rie, and I met at Tsuruga station around half past seven on a cloudy January morning. They had driven up from Nagoya while I caught the first train from Osaka. The weather looked iffy, with a low-pressure system set to move in from noon onwards, but if we waited for the perfect weather every time we set out we’d almost never go hiking, especially not in the Hokuriku Region with its propensity to attract mist and precipitation.

The trailhead parking lot was full of cars, as other locals had apparently not been scared off by the forecast. The march up the track followed a stream before crossing it via a steel staircase that is erected in the winter months. Here we strapped on the crampons and marched up towards the ridge line. With the large snowpack, we could pretty much channel our own route up the mountain, which Paul did at regular intervals for an added aerobic workout.

Despite the steepening grade, we made good progress and before long we had reached the first peak on the ridge, fittingly named Ichi-no-dake. The mountains to the east were swallowed in cloud, robbing us of a view of Hakusan and the Japan Alps, but the summit of Nosaka was still above the clouds, giving us an incentive to keep on the move.

Stopping only to polish off the lenses, the three of us coasted gracefully over the 2nd peak and up through the steepened slopes of beech towards the final summit plateau. On a saddle below the top, a descending hiker warned us that the door of the emergency hut was broken and that we’d have to find another way into the hut. Not knowing the full meaning, we pushed on to the hut, only to find another hiking group removing the rear window of the shelter! Breaking and entering is generally frowned upon, but not when it meant a dry place to sit and eat lunch.

We had the summit to ourselves, as other trekkers milled about in front of the hut and ate their frozen supplies. Each of us taking turns to pose, it was Paul’s steps out to  the west that revealed the waist-deep snow drift that now graces the header on the January entry to the 2018 calendar.

We easily could have spent the rest of the day up here admiring the scenery if not for the brisk gales that were pushing the low pressure system over the massif. We ducked through the open window and into the relatively warm confines of the emergency hut.

The return to the car was relatively uneventful except for our failed attempt to slide down the steeper slopes on our rear ends. I ended up with a bucketful of snow up under my jacket and a drenched bottom due to the wet nature of the snowpack.

Back at the car, we ducked into a family restaurant just as a strong rain shower moved in over Tsuruga. Paul ordered a cheese in hamburg set and had to send it back after they forgot to put the cheese inside. It’s only a matter of time before these chain establishments replace their servers with tablet computers, where orders will be less likely to be mistaken.

All in all, Nosaka is one of Kansai’s best snow hikes, especially if you can time it with a high pressure system and the million dollar views of Hakusan. One day I hope to traverse the ridge over to Akasaka and the Makino highlands, where I just may continue along the Takashima Trail for a few days. If that happens, I’ll be sure to call on Rie and Paul and anyone else who’s up for an adventure in the wild mountains of Fukui.

A gem awaits those that trample these hidden meadows above Wakasa village in western Fukui Prefecture.

The summit plateau is carpeted in a golden shag of grasslands stretching along the ridge for several kilometers, the perfect place for nature photographers to capture hikers strolling along the park-like promenade.

Unobstructed vistas of the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture dominate the southwestern horizon, while the quintet of freshwater lakes near Sekumi Bay sit idle by the seaside like a group of discarded Rorschach inkblots.

The photo chosen for the calendar came out a bit underexposed, likely due to the diffused late afternoon light and a bit of an oversight with my computer monitor: a lot of images appear fine on the computer screen but come out differently in printed form.

This darkened quality, however, does give a mysterious air akin to an overcast day that dominates the weather patterns over the Hokuriku region this time of year.

In terms of origins of the mountain’s name, one theory is that the wood used to build Sanjūsangen temple in Kyoto was taken from trees felled on these very slopes. Since the temple was built in the 12th century, it is quite impossible to bear truth to such theories, but the strand of virgin beech trees lining the upper slopes below the ridge provide a glimpse of what the ancient forests used to look like until the invasion of the cedar kings.

The hike to the summit takes a couple of hours, with relatively easy access by car from Kyoto city. On an exceptionally clear day, Hakusan would be clearly visible on the horizon if not for Mt. Sanjo cutting off the vistas to the east.

In order to provide full disclosure, it must be noted that the images captured here were taken on a chilly day in mid-April, where the scenery still retains the bleak hues of winter. Caught off guard by the sudden drop in temperatures, the three of us raced off the summit in search of the warmer comforts of the sakura-draped foothills below.

 

The Gathering VI

Another autumn had arrived, almost as swiftly as the one that felt like it had just passed. The meant another meeting of the mountaineering minds in the form of our annual gathering. I think it was Paul who had mentioned Hakuba as a possible place for our rotating event, and with the Banff Mountain Film Festival passing through the area in late September, it seemed like a natural match.

Rie, Paul, Hisao and I all met in Nagoya for the 3-1/2 hour drive to Lake Aoki on the southern edge of the ski mecca of Hakuba. With Rie behind the wheel, it was a delightful drive fueled by the intense competition of our 4-way Name that Tune battle. Paul connected his phone to the car stereo and set thematic playlists on random while we all fought for the envious title of champion. The rules were simple: 1 point each for the Artist and the Song Title, followed by an extra point if you could name the movie in which it appeared. Points could be split between several people, and the first person to reach 25 points was crowned winner. We kick off the proceedings with the 80s, with Paul and I neck-and-neck to the very end. He won by just a point while we moved onto the 70s and 90s, where I was schooled pretty heavily.

Upon reaching the lakeside campground in the mid-afteroon, we were delighted to see that Naresh, Bjorn, Miguel, and Eri had already settled into camp. Miguel brought along his inflatable kayak along with a separate blow-up sofa that we all took turns inadvertently bouncing off of. In a move rarely seen in the past 5 gatherings, I set to work in the kitchen, cooking up some chicken and pasta that left the others flabbergasted. Usually in my role of host, I somehow manage to slip away during the busy prep work of dinner, but here I was taking the lead and actually serving other people for once. I have to admit that I wanted to get everyone stuffed and satisfied before we headed up to Iwatake ski resort for the main event. Miguel’s homemade moussaka was a big hit to say the list, and served as a delectable delicacy for our humbled minds and curious stomachs. Meanwhile, Viviana’s video chat from Austria made us feel nostalgic for the old days when she was stilling based here in Japan. Shortly after, we all gathered in front of Michal’s memorial tarp for group photo antics.

As the sun receded towards the horizon, we bought firewood and rented a foldable stove and waited to see if Ed would arrive in time for the film festival. He was running a bit behind schedule, so he agreed to meet us at the campsite afterwards as the 7 of us crammed into Naresh’s minivan for the 20-minute ride to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This annual film festival tours the world, and every year reaches Japan’s shores in the busy autumn season. However, there is usually only one outdoor showing in Japan, with the other dozen or so viewings relegated to a stuffy indoor theater. It seems silly to watch mountaineering films in the warm comforts of the theater instead of natural surroundings in the open air, which is why we all decided to descend onto the dew-covered slopes of Iwatake. The pre-show festivities were already in full swing upon arrival, with a live DJ spinning some smooth house tunes and a half dozen food and beverage vendors spread out in front of the ski lodge. A slackline even made a guest appearance as Paul rubbed elbows with a few school children who were using the contraption as a makeshift trampoline.

The festival started promptly, and upon entry we were all presented a free gift from the masters of headgear over at Buff, the main sponsor of the event. We all received different designs, with the lucky ones the recipient of a 100% merino wool head wrap, which retails for just over 5000 yen. Considering that entry to the festival is only 1500 yen, we all considered ourselves ahead of the game, even for us unlucky few that were given 100% cotton head garments in lieu of the high-quality sheep hair. A drone flew over the crowd to shoot a promotional video for Buff, and we were all encouraged to show off our gifts.

55 Hours in Mexico, a short film created by Outdoor Research, kicked off the festival documenting a weekend assault of Mexico’s Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America . That was followed up by Doing it Scared, an inspirational tale of a British climber overcoming a disability to tackle a spire that was the cause of his crippling accident. When We Were Knights, the tragic story of a fallen wingsuit diver, brought tears to everyone’s eyes while Young Guns showed off two teenage prodigies that are now treading new ground in the realm of Sport Climbing. After a brief intermission, the second half of the festival commenced with Danny MacAskill showing us all that anything is possible and impossible on a mountain bike. Next up came a backcountry ski mission to Alaska where a handful of gravity defiers swooped down near-vertical walls of powder snow to the gasps and yelps of the snow-hungry locals here in Hakuba. The evening ended with the Reel Rock classic A Line Across the Sky following Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitzroy massif in Patagonia. By the time the show was finished, our jaws were sore from having them hanging nonstop in gaped misbelief while watching the truly inspiring footage.

Once back at camp, we set up the campfire and told stories until well past our bedtime. We brought Michal’s photo over from his memorial tarp that we had erected in the campsite. This tarp was given to me by his widow and I vowed to carry on his memory for as long as we continue to hold these annual gatherings. Ed fired up his drone to show us the horsepower but we held off on the surveillance footage for the time being.

 

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with pleasant early-autumn skies. After a brief visit down to the lakeshore to catch up with Justin, we spend most of the morning trying to finish our leftover food between turns in the kayak. Miguel’s moussaka and Bjorn’s pancakes kept our stomachs filled to capacity, with sips of coffee and chai thrown in for good measure. Paul tried very hard into coaxing me into a climb to Yari onsen, but I just wasn’t feeling up for it. The weeks of exhaustion from climbing four major peaks in the Minami Alps had caught up with me, and I needed a proper rest to fully recover. Regretfully, I had to turn down the very tempting offer to accompany him and we all ended up heading back to Nagoya, but not before stopping off at an onsen and indulging on the Kurobe dam curry. We also had a rematch of Name That Tune, with songs from the 50s that I had once again lost by mixing up Elvis and the Beatles and calling the new group ‘Beavis’. Miguel and Eri headed back to Kobe, Naresh back to Tokyo, Ed on his way to Ueda, and before we knew it another gathering had come to an end, but not before some obligatory lakeside drone photos.

 

This year’s gathering was very small compared to the ones in the past. It’s a tough call: have it in a touristy place such as Kamikochi and several dozen will show up, but host it in a far-off place that you need to go out of your way to find and only the most dedicated and hardcore attend. I think I know which one I prefer.

 

 

The Calendar Footage

Now that the official Hiking in Japan wall calendar has been released, I’m starting a new monthly series on the Tozan Tales about each mountain that made the final cut. Those in possession of the calendar can get some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage while learning more about some of Japan’s lesser-known summits. There’s still time to procure one if you’re looking for a great holiday gift. An added bonus is that you can start using the calendar immediately, since the first month is December 2017.

Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.